The future of the British Indian Ocean Territory

The British Indian Ocean Territory - a group of islands below the Maldives that forms one of the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories - has been in the news a lot recently, and rightfully so.


Philip Smith

1/9/20203 min read

The British Indian Ocean Territory - a group of islands below the Maldives that forms one of the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories - has been in the news a lot recently, and rightfully so. The situation of the Chagossians, the people who lived on the islands (which are known as the Chagos Archipelago) and who were evicted from the Islands in the 1960s in order to construct a US military base, is incredibly sad, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for them. But the situation of the BIOT is a lot more complex than the media seems to report, and has only been brought to attention in recent months due to Mauritius’ claims to the islands - which is a totally separate issue to that of the Chagossians.

Friends of the British Overseas Territories is a charity that aims to promote the Overseas Territories and their interests. Our position on the Chagos islands (that they should remain British) is because we believe it is in the best interests of Global Security and of the environment. We do not just regurgitate the position of the British Government, and on many occasions previously we have been highly critical of the British Government’s approach to Overseas Territories. One of our key aims is to help educate the British public on the OTs, as generally they know fairly little. But the media coverage on Chagos has not shown the full picture, so we wish to highlight other side to this complex situation. We are however in no way denying the injustice done to the Chagossians.

One key issue that has not been given enough attention in relation to the islands is the environmental importance of them. Except for the island of Diego Garcia, which is home to the US air and naval base, the islands of the archipelago have been left virtually untouched for decades, which has allowed wildlife to thrive. For example, the coconut crab population on the islands is the densest in the world. And the waters around the islands are rich with diverse life. Due to the special status of the islands because of the sensitive military facility, the environment does not face the threat of tourism, unlike the neighbouring Maldives, and the lack of a civilian population means problems such as sand mining and littering are non-existent. Thanks to the British Government, the Chagos archipelago has become one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world, meaning the rich waters cannot be harmed by fishing.

Another factor that is crucial to this issue is the importance of the US/UK military base on Diego Garcia. The Naval and Air facilities there are crucial to ensuring the US and UK can maintain global capabilities. The base was essential in US bombing operations in the Middle East early in this century, and recent events in Iraq have shown us that US/UK forces in the Middle East may be under threat, so Diego Garcia could be crucial to protecting them. But if Mauritius were to gain sovereignty over the archipelago, it is highly likely China would try to buy Diego Garcia in order to gain the incredibly strategic base, and would be willing to pay a high price, likely with infrastructure on Mauritius. China has shown a pattern of behaviour like this in the region, buying influence with infrastructure, and it is highly unlikely they would not seize this opportunity to have a military facility right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. One of the reasons the UK and the US have been able to maintain their global influence is because of the number of overseas military bases they have. But China have relatively few military bases outside their borders, so a potential Chinese base on Diego Garcia would be a big deal. Therefore, whatever happens with the situation of the islanders, it is essential that Britain maintains sovereignty over the islands.

It is also important to note that in 2015, KPMG did an independent study for the Foreign Office assessing the possibility of resettling the islands. From this, the UK Government decided that it would be too expensive and logistically impractical. It is in the UK’s interests to end the situation of the Chagossians, but unfortunately it just isn’t realistically possible for this to happen. And if the UK, the 5th richest country in the world, evaluates it to be too expensive and impractical, how would Mauritius, the 133rd richest country in the world, be able to do this? The UK was of course wrong to evict the islanders, but it has given compensation to them (just under £5 million), and should absolutely continue to do so.

Whatever you think of whether the Chagossians should be resettled (and there are arguments both ways), it is very clear that Mauritius’ claims to the islands are weak. The islands have been British since 1810 (when they were captured from the French), and had no native population before European discovery. Mauritius claim the islands because they were administered together when Mauritius was a Crown Colony. But this is a very weak claim - by this logic St Kitts, Nevis, BVI, Montserrat, Antigua, Barbuda, and Dominica should all be one country!

Our position is not that the Chagossians should be denied the right to return, it is just that we believe other factors should be taken into consideration too. We wish for this issue to be settled, and that may include the Chagossians returning to the islands, but it is crucial for global security they remain British, and it is time that Mauritius end their unfounded claims to the archipelago.